Four students from the University of Arkansas have launched a startup company around technology developed by U of M biochemist Simo Sarkanen, Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, that would manufacture biodegradable plastic shopping bags. As its name implies, this refer to the shopping bags that won’t take years before they’re fully composted in the ground, unlike traditional plastic shopping bags. The process of coming up with these biodegradable plastic shopping bags is also more eco-friendly than it is with paper bags, the highly favored alternative to plastic bags as of the moment.

The founders formed cycleWood Solutions Inc. after creating a business plan around the technology for an entrepreneurship class.

“The point of the class was to build a viable business,” said Nhiem Cao, president and CEO of cycleWood Solutions. He found the technology, a lignin-based biodegradable plastic, on the Office for Technology Commercialization’s website. They then completed an option agreement for the technology, and later licensed it to launch the startup.

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According to Cao, one million plastic bags are used globally every minute. Some discarded bags will sit forever in landfills, some will pollute the world’s oceans and landscapes as litter and less than one percent will be recycled. Worse, many of these plastic bags end up as single-use ones. Right when the user leaves the store carrying it, it’s immediately disposed in landfills where all it does is clog it up even more. Cao hopes cycleWood will be part of the solution to this problem.

“Our product will biodegrade in 150 days,” said Cao. “Instead of having a growing problem, the problem will gradually go away.”

This 150-day timeline is a far shorter than the usual 10 to 20 years that it takes non-biodegradable plastics to decompose. Before they even do, it could already cause permanent damage to the environment, which will also take years to undo, hence the need for eco-friendly solutions like Cao’s biodegradable plastic shopping bags.

Although details are not yet finalized, Cao anticipates the startup will provide the product at a slightly higher price point than traditional plastic bags but still be a substantial savings over biodegradable options currently available. Several corporate retailers have already indicated interest in the bags.

This higher price can also encourage companies and buyers to use shopping bags made from Calico, for instance, to their maximum potential before disposing of them. Simply discarding them right away won’t be cost-effective, which can foster a more eco-friendly attitude among buyers.

There are also talks of developing biodegradable bags for yard waste, and BBs for airsoft guns. But the startup’s first priority will be to get investors on board and initiate a manufacturing strategy.

cycleWood last week was named regional champion in the 2011 Cleantech Open Business Competition, and will go on to compete in the national competition in November.

Nhiem Cao has more than five years of experience working as a process engineer and wet-end superintendent in the paper industry.  Kevin Oden, COO, has two years of experience consulting for a large plastics manufacturer.

Efforts like this coming from the private sector through the academe should inspire you enough to come up with your own efforts to contribute to an environmental cause. There’s no better time for this than now, when the world has started to suffer the severe effects of abuse to the environment. Do your part to ensure that efforts like these don’t go to waste. Show support by choosing to use these bags instead of traditional shopping bags. Whenever possible, make the smarter decision and go for biodegradable products, so you can lessen the plastic buildup in landfills and, worse, in the oceans.

Source: The Office for Technology Commercialization at the University of Minnesotta oversees all aspects of technology commercialization at the University of Minnesota. Its mission is to translate U of research into new products and services that provide growth opportunities for licensees, benefit the public good, improve the quality of life, and generate revenue tosupport research and education goals.